When I first started meditating, I was anxious and fidgety. I wanted to crawl out of my skin. I’m truly astounded that I didn’t quit, since I was 17 at the time and had quit all sorts of things in those days—and they were mostly things that were good for me. Things that weren’t good for me, I just kept on doing. But somehow I did keep going with meditation. Maybe it had something to do with peer pressure or pride, or just the notion of how silly it would be to chuck the whole thing aside because I couldn’t pay attention to my breath without going just a little bit crazy. Also, meditating confirmed that you were not part of the mainstream, and not being mainstream was a part of my thing back then (#sixties, which didn’t end till the middle of the seventies).
Stick-to-it-iveness, or stubbornness, or whatever it was, paid off, because meditation soon became a regular and important part of my life. A lot of the agitation died down (although it’s still there in a big way at times) and I began to sense a backdrop of well-being that lay behind all experiences. Nice.
And yet, this chill quality started to be married to ambition, trying to become a good meditator, hell, a great meditator. I filled my head with fantasies of how wise and measured
I would be, maybe even holy, but certainly someone whom people would look upon as a sage, the one who is the calm center in the midst of the storm. In terms of my actual demeanor and behavior, this was far from the case, as anyone who knew me in my early days will tell you.
There’s an inner being inside us all, it seems, who wants to take the path of least resistance, avoid doing the dirty work, and be lauded nonetheless. I’ll call him Frank (with apologies to all the Franks out there). Frank makes a big mess. When inner Frank takes over, it’s as if a wild boar got drunk and imagined he could safely interact with humans in polite society. Frank thinks he’s so suave and debonair, but he’s thinking only of himself, and he’s therefore oafish and inconsiderate of others—like the “Two Wild and Crazy Guys” in the Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd Saturday Night Live skit. (Check it out on YouTube if you haven’t seen it or it’s faded from memory.) When that ambitious lout inside of me took hold, I feel pretty certain I became arrogant, clumsy, and at times intolerable.
Eventually, though, like the skin-crawling agitation that dominated my early forays into meditation, the self-importance and ambition started to lessen and weaken. It became not only tedious to others but tedious to me. And yes, like the agitation, it could rear its ugly head at any time, probably even as recently as yesterday, but all in all, trying to win the meditation Olympic Gold Medal has been much less of a feature of what you might call my meditation “career.”
What became a bigger feature is a seemingly insatiable curiosity about why I (and we, I suppose) cling so tightly to the notion that things ought not to change, that they should stay just like they are, that the status quo ante (i.e., how things have been) is the best status of all. We adhere to this belief and desire in spite of massive evidence to the contrary every single day, if not every minute, of our lives. Staying the same is not what’s going on here.
Flux is the thing.
And yet, I find, I still expect things not to change, many decades into my examination of this intractable habit. There are explanations having to do with the fact that it can be a helpful mental shortcut to expect things to stay the same: to believe that there will be a floor under our feet when we swing out of bed in the morning; that when the light turns green, people will go; that my baseball team will once again not go to the World Series and that my wife will mock me for giving a damn about that. Indeed, there are common-sense reasons for what psychologists call our status quo bias, and yet in the context of figuring out the ways we cause ourselves pain, putting forth reasons for relying on things staying the same really amounts to no more than making excuses, in my mind, for our deep clinging to the familiar, our allegiance to permanence, our fear of change.
Interrupting the momentum of our discomfort with change in the small things can, over time, subtly alter our perception of the big things. In some ways, this is indeed at the heart of mindfulness.
Somewhere along the way, though, the why part of this quest started to recede into the background. It seemed a waste of time to keep trying to resolve a conundrum that eluded me for as long as some middle-aged people have lived. A better approach might be to take it for granted and see what could be done to undercut and confound it.
Some people call this allowing practice, just letting things be, and in my experience, there can be a number of allowing practices. The trick, though, is for the allowing practices to not be about a begrudging allowance, à la “OK, things change. I get it. So, can we get on with the familiar, already?” Calling these “practices” makes it a bit fancy, I admit. They are simply reflections in the midst of life: taking the opportunities presented to us to acclimate to the big, beautiful, changing scene that life serves up.
Since these nine reflections focus on the minutiae of life, things that might even normally be beneath notice, one could argue that they’re not that relevant to the kinds of change that deeply bother us: losing or not getting a job, having our hopes dashed, the death of friends and family, the fact that we will die.
Fair point. These big life events are the emotional touch points where our difficulty with change—our feeling of time passing, that everything moves on and slips through our fingers—makes itself most acutely felt. For that very reason, though, these are hard to tackle head-on. Interrupting the momentum of our discomfort with change in the small things can, over time, subtly alter our perception of the big things. In some ways, this is indeed at the heart of mindfulness: When we rest patiently, with no goal, aim, or destination for a while, we turn a microscope on the shifting landscape that emerges anew with each passing moment.
1. Plant Life
If you take a close look at plastic flowers and then compare them to living flowers, what’s the salient difference? It’s that the living flowers are also dying flowers. The very fact that they have a life span and you can see that change before your eyes is key to their beauty. When you can, take a little time to observe the fragility of a flower. Even a silk flower fades in the sunlight and a plastic flower will eventually become brittle.
Some places have four very distinct seasons. In other places, the seasonal change is subtler, but no place on Earth is without seasonal changes in temperature, light, precipitation, plant life—providing an excellent opportunity to revel in the changes. One Japanese approach to nature and food even divides the year into 72 micro-seasons, of about five days each. (And yes, there is an app for that.)
Next to my desk is a wide, tall window, and I make sure to look out from it each day and check out the seasonal change. In early spring, the branches are bare, in midspring they are spare, by late spring and summer, they hang down from the weight of leaves, blossoms, and seeds. In autumn, they are colorful. In winter, they are skeletal.
For years, my brother lived on the side of a mountain. When I would visit him, I used to love to sit on his porch as late afternoon gave way to evening and nighttime. We tend to think of the color of something we see as fixed, but it is not. Colors change all the time in relation to light. In bright light, the trees on my brother’s mountain are mostly bright green. As the light fades, they are dark green, and then black, no more than a silhouette. Are we not just the same, not one color, but many colors?
We live in an age when we are necessarily concerned with temperature. Global warming is a temperature event that concerns us all, and contemplating that means allowing for a lot of uncertainty and sadness about the future—the solastalgia that the naturalist and meditation teacher Mark Coleman referred to in his piece in the April 2019 issue of Mindful. There is no real way around that shared wound. Allowing does not mean negating what is painful. It is allowing what is there to simply be there.
Allowing does not mean negating what is painful. It is allowing what is there to simply be there.
We’re also obsessed with temperature, our Goldilocks yearning for the perfect temperature condition, reinforced by our massively managed climate control systems that attempt to keep us all in our happy place (ironically, a big contributor to global warming). I like to observe when I’m clinging hard to an ideal temperature, or season, and see if I can allow myself to be a person “for all seasons.” When it’s cold, it’s cold. When it’s hot, it’s hot. Cheerleading for one or the other, as our media meteorologists do incessantly, is forever asking us to be somewhere other than where we are.
Travel is about changing locations. Throughout human history, we’ve sought faster and faster ways to change location. In our science fiction, we love the idea of teletransportation—to be somewhere else in the blink of an eye. Get there fast and park as close as you can to the entrance.
I have to travel a fair amount for my work, to meet people doing cool things in cool places. In the past few years, I’ve done a few things to try to notice the speed of travel and to appreciate where I am more and how I’m moving from place to place. I try now to figure out how an airport is actually laid out rather than being lost in a maze like a rat in a Skinner box. In a city, I take out a paper map and spread it on my bed and study it, so I have an overview (particularly since GPS systems appear to be eroding our powers of spatial and situational awareness). I try to be where I am as completely as possible, not simply on my way to somewhere else. As John P. Milton, the founder of vision questing, said, “Sky above, earth below.” Or put another way, “Wherever you go, there you are,” made popular by Jon Kabat-Zinn, and attributed to both Confucius and Buckaroo Banzai.
Moving more slowly helps, including walking and bicycling. Instead of zipping around from place to place in a cab or a ride-share, I try public transportation when I can. There is more waiting. And during that waiting, while I am impatient, I can allow myself to be impatient, and observe it rise and fall. It’s almost like going to the movies. And like the movies, you’re together in a room with your fellow human beings. This room moves, though.
Time bends and flexes and floats. We’ve become so accustomed to thinking of time as being measured only by the clock that we may not notice so much all the other rhythms in life that “keep time” like a metronome. A heartbeat. The path of the sun through the sky. The seasons. Even our attention: When bored, a minute drags; when engaged, a minute flies. Is a minute, then, a fixed thing? Take time to notice the ways that time is influenced, by how fast someone talks, by how much they pay attention to you, by whether we have chosen to be someplace or would rather be somewhere else. Take your time. Even with the mundane, especially with the mundane. Why rush through the dishes? Does barreling through the tedium to get to the other side really make us happier? Appreciate timing as much as time.
7. Changing Your Mind
Changing your mind gets a very bad rap. Don’t succumb to that tyranny! Go ahead, let your mind change. Let it go where it will. A changing mind is a beautiful mind. As long as you don’t create too much chaos for other people, admitting that your mind has changed can be humbling.
8. Passing Interests and Abilities
My daughter seems to have a new hobby every six months or so, and she gets pretty good at them, and some of them stick for longer. Years ago I obsessed about opera. Today, it’s an occasional thing. I once played a lot of golf and was pretty good. Now, not so much. Interests wax and wane. What was the thing is no longer the thing. There are fashions. Hula hoops, yo-yos, roller rinks, mood rings. Yes, that’s fickle, but this fickleness is something to be honest about. Everything has a first blush, a honeymoon, a plateau…and an eventual death. Even our greatest passions.
And speaking of death, we are all dying. We are aging, in every minute. Over time, our capacities decrease. No matter how hard we work at it, eventually we will be able to do less, we will likely be in more pain, we will see more pain, we will have lost more people, we will face a diagnosis, a tragic loss.
Why not make friends with change, with allowing, every day? When the big changes come, they will not seem so big. We may well have embraced change that much.
Why not make friends with change, with allowing, every day?
In this continual process of allowing, I cannot say how much I have loosened my clinging to wanting things to remain. I cannot say I am eager to die, or to lose my friends, or to have good times turn to hard times. No, I continue to cling. I have pretty much given up trying to figure out why. Just human, I guess.
And yet here, as in so many things in life, there is a paradox: In my very acceptance of the fact that I don’t accept impermanence, I find some peace. And I allow it to be there, like dew hanging off the tip of a leaf, glinting in the early morning sun. The early morning sun will burn off the dew. By night the leaf will be a dark silhouette and eventually unseen. So be it.
A Practice to Welcome Everything
by Frank Ostaseski
To welcome something doesn’t mean we have to like it, and it doesn’t mean we have to agree with it; it just means we have to be willing to meet it. We temporarily suspend our rush to judgment and are simply open to what’s occurring.
With welcoming comes the ability to work with what is present and what is unpleasant. After a while, we begin to discover that our happiness isn’t determined simply by what is external in our life but also what is internal.
To be open means to embrace paradox and contradiction; it’s about keeping our minds and hearts available to new information, letting ourselves be informed by life. Openness welcomes the good times and the bad times as equally valid experiences.
Openness is the basis of a skillful response to life.
At the deepest level, this is an invitation to fearless receptivity. To welcome everything and push away nothing can’t be done as an act of will. This is an act of love.
Mostly, we think of mindfulness as bringing a very precise attention to what’s happening, as it’s happening. In this way, we bring an almost laser-like attention to our practice. We bring a careful moment-to-moment attention to sensation, to thoughts, to emotions. But sometimes this kind of precise attention can create a sort of tension or struggle in the mind. This is when it’s more useful to try a practice that cultivates an open, boundless awareness. To develop a mind that is vast like space. To allow pleasant and unpleasant experiences to appear and disappear without struggle, resistance, or harm.
So, let’s try this practice for welcoming everything and pushing away nothing.
Settle back into your seat, relax, and come into the breath and body. Maybe let your eyes close if that feels comfortable for you. Let your breathing be very natural.
Begin by being aware of the various sensations in your body: pressure, movement, tingling, the feel of the air on your hands and face. Just feel the waves of sensation.
Now, let go of the idea of arms and legs and a body. Become aware of the area above your head. How far does that space extend? Let your awareness sense what’s to the left of you. What’s to the right of you? Let your awareness come into the area below your body. Is there any vibration in your feet or the floor? Let your awareness extend to the area behind your body, so it fills the whole room. Let your awareness be aware of what’s in front of the body, extending out as far as it possibly can, so that there’s this sense of openness, of boundless space; and all of the activities of body, heart, and mind are appearing and disappearing in that open, welcoming space.
Allow all experience to arise without any interference—
no inside, no outside. Relax your ownership of thoughts. Look and see the difference between being lost in thought and being mindful of thought. It’s like when a sound occurs in the room, or a bird flies by, you just notice the sound of the bird; you don’t think it’s you. Let it be that way with your thoughts and sensations, everything coming, everything going in a vast, open space. It can be helpful to think about what happens when you walk into a room: Most people see the chairs or tables or the objects in the room and fail to see the space.
Let yourself be aware of the space surrounding all the activity, all the coming and going. Remember, whatever we can give space to can move. Keep allowing all the thoughts, all the sensations, all the feelings to rise and disappear in the vast spaciousness, like clouds in the sky.
Finally, let your attention come to the awareness itself, vast, transparent, clear, not disturbed by anything that’s coming and going. Welcome everything, push away nothing.